Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department on Aug. 2, 2022, as Attorney General Merrick Garland looks on.

Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta speaks during a news conference at the Justice Department on Aug. 2, 2022, as Attorney General Merrick Garland looks on. / Getty Images

For nearly three years now, the job of associate attorney general — the third highest-ranking person inside the Justice Department — has been a sprint.

Vanita Gupta, who is preparing to leave her post this week, told NPR in an exclusive interview Tuesday that she means that literally.

"I have been in situations where I have literally been running down a hallway and crossing another person running down in the opposite direction just so we can convey information and make sure we are having the types of robust discussions that we need to on matters of the day," she said.

Those matters of the day can range from civil rights and the environment to moments of tragedy.

Gupta, 49, said some of the most meaningful and painful experiences have come in meetings with victims of gun violence — from street crime in Chicago and the racist killings at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., to the murder of 19 children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, in May 2022.

This month, federal authorities said some of those victims in Uvalde may have died because of the botched law enforcement response. Family members sobbed as they heard the Justice Department's findings, she recalled.

"These trips are ones that will stick with me forever," Gupta said. "I talk about them a lot because it's important to understand that the trauma that lives in the aftermath of these acts goes on long after the media goes away."

She said the Justice Department is working to support survivors and first responders who are traumatized after seeing the most awful things.

This has been Gupta's second tour at the Justice Department

During the Obama years, she led the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, launching systemic investigations of police departments that violated the Constitution. Those pattern-or-practice investigations fell out of favor in the Trump administration.

But Gupta and her colleagues have revived those tools.

"We are operating to ensure effectiveness, and when we find places where we are less than effective or that need improvement, we have to be willing to take a look at ourselves and do better," she said.

Officials in Phoenix, where police remain under a broad civil rights investigation, have criticized the Justice Department for a "one size fits all" approach to police reform. But Gupta responded that the Justice Department has been fair and independent, even imposing new limits and accountability for police monitors.

Another top priority for Gupta has been responding to the Supreme Court's Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization decision, which threw out an abortion-rights precedent that had been on the books for nearly 50 years.

"Dobbs dealt a devastating blow to reproductive freedom in the United States, and the decision has been greatly disproportionate in its effect," she said. "The greatest burdens have been felt by people of color or those with limited financial means and other vulnerable populations."

As the fight over abortion rights continues, the Justice Department is involved in two pending Supreme Court cases about abortion: supporting access to mifepristone, which is used in medication abortions, and demanding hospitals live up to a law that says facilities that participate in Medicare have to provide abortions when they're necessary to stabilize an emergency room patient.

"We've heard some of the horror stories of women being denied emergency care, being told to sit in parking lots while they're bleeding out, et cetera, because doctors are literally afraid of being prosecuted for making the wrong decision or wrong determination about whether something is an emergency requiring abortion care to save a woman's life," she said.

The Justice Department is also feuding with Texas in the U.S. Supreme Court over that state's move to limit federal immigration agents. Gupta said the department will protect the federal government's interests. She said, "We have spoken through our lawsuits" about when a state may have violated the Constitution's supremacy clause.

She helped reach settlements in sensitive cases

One of the lesser-known aspects of her portfolio as associate attorney general — spanning civil rights and taxes to the environment and the grantmaking unit — involves defending the federal government when it's sued.

Gupta helped push to reach settlements in a number of highly sensitive cases, including claims that the FBI dropped the ball in a background check of the Charleston, S.C., Emanuel AME Church shooter and in the case of the man who fatally shot students in Parkland, Florida.

Late last year, she also oversaw a settlement over the practice of family separation, which severed migrant parents from their children during the Trump administration. The court-approved deal prevents future family separations for eight years and provides support services for families that have been separated.

"It's important that we take very seriously the defense role that we play defending federal agencies across the government ... but it's also important that the Justice Department, the only agency in the federal government that's named after a value, aim to seek justice and obtain justice," she said.

Claims for money damages by some of the separated migrants have proved harder to resolve, politically.

As a lifelong civil rights lawyer, she said, the work never feels completely done, but she's confident the team that will remain in place is "hard at work to protect our democracy."

She is preparing to leave on Friday. Gupta, a mother to two teenagers, said she's not certain what comes next for her. "I'm going to take some rest, maybe smother my kids with a little overparenting and read some good books," she added.

Gupta says she has spent her whole life in public service, mostly as a civil rights lawyer, so she may find a way back again.

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